28 September 2007

Larry Kert

Somewhere, a place for him

The fiftieth anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story has launched a raft of tributes and souvenirs. Upon reexamination, the show remains a marvel, and it’s a touchstone for people I care about. Get Ana María Martínez, the wonderful soprano, started on the subject, and you’ll get a graduate-level seminar. The irrepressible Adolph Green, whom I knew through the magnanimity of his daughter, Amanda, used to lament that he and Betty Comden turned down the chance to write the lyrics for the show: “Romeo and Juliet on the West Side? It’ll never work,” they said, and handed the baton to a rookie named Sondheim.

But the show was more than a touchstone to someone else I cared about: Larry Kert. He was the original Tony. To which you say, “Wow!” When I met him, three decades later, he was the original Nathan Hershkowitz/Nat Harris in a show that made substantially less impact, Rags. To which you say, “Huh?” I was the lone production assistant on that $5.5 million musical, which closed after four performances and was, for a time, the most expensive flop in the history of Broadway. Larry was not lucky, it must be said.

He lost the lead in the film of West Side Story to a guy whose singing voice had to be dubbed, but who looked (or so the producers thought) the right age. He gained the lead in Company only after Dean Jones flamed out, and the lead in Cabaret only when Bert Convy called in sick. His big number in Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York was cut in the editing room. For his last show, Legs Diamond, he was standby to Peter Allen in a disaster-riddled production; both he and Allen were already succumbing to AIDS.

But Larry remained a pro, a breathtakingly skillful song-and-dance man who made it all look easy, and who took pleasure in the appearance of ease. His light tenor voice still sailed in Rags rehearsals as it did when he recorded Tony. And perhaps most tellingly, the joy and optimism of Tony — that you hear so memorably in his first number, “Something’s Coming” — belonged to Larry Kert. He wasn’t acting, there; he was living. To hear that song is to know him, and now that he’s gone, I can’t hear the song without getting choked up.

He was one of the funniest people I’ve met, and yet, curiously, he never seemed to be one of the smartest. I’ve always linked intellect to wit, but somehow Larry transcended my expectations — or else, as is entirely possible, he was a sly fox who didn’t need to show off in front of pretentious Ivy League eggheads like me. I’m sure I was all the more insufferable because I had the lowliest of jobs. Surrounded by people who could do things I couldn’t (sing, dance, play piano, work miracles), I was stuck doing things anybody could (making coffee, typing script revisions).

For me, Rags was a heady experience. Teresa Stratas kissed me on the lips, the way she kissed John the Baptist in Salome! (Well, almost the same way. My head was attached to my neck.) I met Jack and Madeline Gilford! I worked for Bob Straus! I got stoned with Lonny Price! Marcia Lewis took me to a seafood restaurant, and became my Oyster Bunny! I had a serious love affair that ended catastrophically! Yet somehow I always knew I’d go home, like Toby Tyler in his circus. Rags proved to me that, if the theater had any place for me (and it’s never been certain that it does), it wasn’t backstage.

Larry had learned long ago that his rightful place was onstage, front and center. But knowing where you belong is not in itself a solution. His role in Rags — the assimilationist (i.e., sellout) immigrant, the unctuous ward heeler among union rabble-rousers — was sketchy and unsympathetic, and no amount of rewriting seemed to help that. He didn’t even make his entrance until the end of Act I, and his numbers in Act II weren’t the crowd pleasers they should have been. And they never got better. As I say, Larry wasn’t lucky.

Putting the show up was an arduous process, complicated by a troubled script and innumerable shortcomings among the production team: the cast rose to every challenge, yet it took something out of them. Larry endured every hardship with — well, the same grace and ease and joy and optimism that marked his performance.

At some point, I mentioned that the first show I’d seen on Broadway was Sweeney Todd. Larry grinned. “One night I went to dinner at Steve Sondheim’s house, and he told me he’d just finished a new song,” he said. “So after dinner, we went to the piano, and he handed me the song and asked me to sing it. ‘Johanna.’ I was the first person to sing that.” And he sang me a few bars. “I feel you, Johanna / And someday, I’ll steal you….”

That sweet, limpid tenor voice was born to sing that number — about two decades too early. Victor Garber wound up introducing “Johanna,” and although it’s unclear that his subsequent career owes everything to Sweeney Todd, it certainly didn’t hurt. But what might have become of Larry’s career if he’d been in the right place at the right time — and the right age?

Did he ask himself the same question? He sure as hell wasn’t going to confide his disappointments and (if any) bitterness to the gopher (who was, not incidentally, the confidant of his costar). No, all I ever saw in Larry was the spirit of Tony from West Side Story, who knew in his bones that with a click, with a shock, the phone would jingle, door would knock. The air was humming, and something great was coming.

Maybe tonight.